Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Here Dey Iss!

     Why and how “Gus” Dirks is credited is a mystery. Rudolph’s brother, creator of the Bugville cartoons, had died, a suicide, in 1903, more than a decade before this promo card was sent out.

By Rick Marschall

I have recalled in previous “Crowded Life” installments for Yesterday’s Paper my encounters with those rascally kids Hans and Fritz… I mean Rudy and John Dirks. How early my crowded life in comics began, how young I was when I contracted Cartoonvirus; and how long Rudolph Dirks lived.

It still amazes me in 2020 that I have letters from the man who drew the very first newspaper strips in 1897. Other cartoonists, including legends, I met through recommendations. In a different age, a lot of celebrities were comfortable with their names and addresses and phone numbers being listed in phone books. Rudy lived on 86th Street in Manhattan, in the old German neighborhood of Yorkville. A phone call, a knock on the door…

Today, some people don’t even know what a phone book is.

Anyway, no “old codger” (me) game here. Later, in the corporate comics world, I became the editor of John Dirks, who inherited Hans and Fritz from his father. You all know the story of how the Katzenjammer Kids became the Captain and the Kids, different syndicates, rival strips, same characters… But maybe you haven’t seen some of the weapons in that famous journalistic war.

The back story – only told, so far, in my own writings (cf. America’s Great Comic Strip Artists, Abbeville 1989; and Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997) – is that publisher William Randolph Hearst, godfather of the comics supplement if not the comic strip, was loyal to some of his army of editorial assistants, like the famous Arthur Brisbane. Like the infamous Rudolph Block.

Block wore several hats in the Hearst empire. Under the name Bruno Lessing he wrote fiction, often for the Hearst papers’ Sunday feature sections. He also wrote plays for the Yiddish theater, then a thriving business. As Block, at the turn of the century, he “directed” the Sunday color comic supplements: hiring cartoonists, suggesting gags, and for a while quite actively assigning themes on certain weeks, so cartoonists could deal with the same subjects or (in brilliant fun) jamming on pages together. Blended families of characters.

But John Dirks told me that the legend of Rudy wanting a European vacation and jumping ship to the rival Pulitzer chain when it was denied… was bunk. Or “piffle,” as Rudy called BS.

Rudolph Dirks could not stand Rudolph Block, his editor.

I asked the daughter of the creator of the Yellow Kid and Buster Brown, the delightful and frail Mary Jane Outcault Pershing, in her 96th year, what her father thought of Rudolph Block. She leaned forward and whispered, “He said he was a son of a bitch.”

Hmmm. Frederick Burr Opper didn’t get along, either. And – how oblique but how dispositive – I once asked Moon Mullins’s Ferd Johnson if he knew why his predecessor Frank Willard left the Hearst Chicago paper and switched to the Chicago Tribune and its syndicate.

“Rudolph Block,” Ferd said. “Doc [Willard’s nickname] got so sore at him one day, he punched him in the face and quit.”

Nevertheless, Hearst kept Rudolph Block on the staff, with major duties. I do not know if Dirks tested the waters, or whether the pioneer of newspaper syndication, John Wheeler, fished in troubled waters, but Dirks took Hans, Fritz, Mama, and the Captain to the Pulitzer chain led by the New York World. The enterprising Wheeler had managed a similar shift, same papers, a couple years earlier, with Bud Fisher and Mutt and Jeff.

Early comics history is replete with cartoonists and their creations migrating between papers. There were lawsuits, and threatened lawsuits. These remarkably little-documented altercations will be limned in my revival of Nemo Magazine, upcoming, yes. But the Yellow Kid, Buster Brown, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, and The Newlyweds were all characters who switched sides, and had other artists draw rival versions while the originals continued. Foxy Grandpa, Lady Bountiful, and S’Matter Pop? were strips that switched sides but did not inspire imitators.

Usually the result of dust-ups about ownership and rights, legal decisions or not, was that creators retained rights to their characters; and the newspaper of origin maintained the title and trademarks.

The Katzenjammer Kids, despite the success and celebrity of Buster Brown and Happy Hooligan, surely was a “line leader” for the Hearst papers. They continued as stars with Hearst, drawn by Harold Hering Knerr – who had been earning his living at The Philadephia Inquirer, drawing a carbon-copy of the characters and premise, The Fineheimer Twins.

Hearst’s loss of the Katzies was a big deal; and so, logically, was the acquisition of the characters at the World the papers served by the Pulitzer syndicate, Press Publishing. At first the weekly pages were entitled Here Dey Iss! and later Hans and Fritz. And for several tears each page bore the legend, “By the Originator of the Katzenjammer Kids,” a natural statement of fact.

For weeks those papers ballyhooed the new strip as much as they could. In this column our illustrations display how big the game was played… and how small, if not little. Posters and full-page newspaper ads left no reader in doubt! Mayhem was warned… fun was coming… favorites planned their return!

In contrast to the posters and full-page advertisements were post cards, mailed to millions of readers in each of the cities. Here dey iss! You can see by the newspaper page, Rudolph Dirks himself, in stylish cap, finally reached the celebrity status of those dod-gasted kids, Hans und Fritz and Fritz und Hans...


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